Religion, Academia, and Pluralism

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pluralism is “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” On the basis of this definition, it is almost impossible to live in today’s society without being affected by pluralism. This is exacerbated by the reality that Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism) tends to be against (religious) pluralism, while the academic context (and society at large) is for religious pluralism.

Some quick googling of pluralism and the Bible confirms the sense that many Christians see pluralism as evil (or, at least, wrong).

Yet, simply saying that Christians need to hold to certain truths (i.e., Jesus being the way or the Apostle’s Creed) is in adequate in relating to pluralism. A text like Acts 17, where Paul speaks to the Athenians about their worshiping an unknown God, is much more helpful. Stories do a better job than truth claims in addressing how one lives in a society that sees these truth claims as being exclusive, “fine for you, but not for everyone,” or even unloving.

As we’ve been addressing this question of how to live as Christians in the (academic) world, a helpful definition of pluralism has been that of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

“First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. . . Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies. Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. . . Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. . . Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences.”                                —Diana L. Eck, 2006

Living well in a pluralistic society doesn’t mean believing (in) nothing – instead, it means knowing what I believe well enough to recognize and listen to what others believe, so that together we may challenge and encourage each other.

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